September 27, 2006

Greetings from Sittilingi. Its been a while since the last post and hope this update will help fill the gap in communication. We have had the usual problems with crashing computers, and dead phone lines [the Thulir phone is dead as write this, and we are hoping to somehow access the net from elsewhere to post this!]. The connection is very poor in Sittilingi so this update might just be largely text without photographs.

Update on Basic Technology Course:

The course has so far been a roller coaster ride with moments of exhilaration and of depression and despair. Its been constantly on our minds to put down detailed notes and share it with you all through the Blog. But one of the major outcome of starting the course has been a lack of time and energy to sit down and write.

We started the course with the idea that one of us can take charge of the course full time and leave the other person to look after the continuing programmes at Thulir [the other morning and evening classes]. We had to quickly give this up as it became too exhausting for a single person to be with the students for the full day and take all the classes [not to mention the quick boredom amongst the students in having to sit with a single teacher for the whole day!]. Now the two of us are involved together splitting the classes between us.

The interesting challenge so far has been trying to balance classroom theory sessions with practical classes. there have been times when we have had more of theory, and the students had lost patience and interest and showed restlessness. At times such as these we try to quickly move on to practical sessions, though this is often not easy. The reason being that practical work needs careful planning and ensuring that the right type of tools in adequate quantities along with the raw materials are available. This is proving to be difficult as we have yet to establish our workshops and equip them properly and out of campus work such as electrical wiring/ plumbing needs real life work available when we need it.

Well, coming down to the specifics of what the course has been going through so far, you may remember that we had talked about the beekeeping workshop in our last post. Here's continuing from there...

The Beekeeping training at Vazhathottam was very useful. The boys learnt many useful tips on how to capture bee colonies from the wild and also various aspects of maintenance of the bee boxes.

As mentioned earlier in our previous Blog post, the workshop conducted at Thulir on beekeeping by Justin Raj and Rajendran of Keystone, generated such a lot of enthusiasm that we decided to take it further. So Senthil, Jayaram, Perumal, Balu and Selvaraj along with Anu and Sreyarth went to Keystone's Field Station at Vazhaithottam, Nilgiris.

Excerpts from Anu's notes on this trip:

"It was a truly great experience. Vazhathottam is located in the Sigur plateau next to the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary and staying in such a place was a bonus. We went for walks into the forest nearby and spotted Malabar squirrels, wild dogs, deer etc.

Justin Raj was an excellent teacher and the boys had more than enough opportunities to work on many bee boxes each at a different stages of development and honey production, presenting one with its own unique problem. We were particularly happy that Sreyarth [our 9 yr old son] was completely involved in the training, took notes diligently, kept a record of the days happenings every night, and handled bees with ease and with interest. He asked us for a Bee box as a birthday gift. Seeing his enthusiasm, Drs. Nandakumar and Shyla at Gudalur, gave him one of their empty bee boxes. We were also very impressed by the dignity and confidence of the tribal boys while handling the bees. They are absolutely quiet and full of concentration . They do not flinch or move even an eyelid when they get stung. And to think that none of the boys had had any previous experience with the bees!"

Once they came back, there was much enthusiasm and almost every day they would be off early morning or later in the afternoons to hunt for colonies to capture. Of course , some of the boys got stung . The bees seem to especially like the area around the eyes. Soon we had most of them moving around with swollen eyes and temporarily half blind. Balu, while walking early morning to his family farm spied a bee colony in transit[with his one working eye of course!]. Bees in transit are ideal for capture, as they have voluntarily left their hive to setup a new hive. Balu was not prepared as he didn't have an empty box or a netted bag which is normally used and had no one to help. Not one to be easily discouraged, Balu found a one foot long piece of bamboo lying by the road side, picked up a piece of waste plastic carry bag, to use as a stopper for the bamboo, neatly gathered the bees and put them into the hollow of the bamboo. Having thus captured the colony, he promptly was at our doorstep at 7 am on a Sunday morning! Very soon we had 7 boxes with new bee colonies. Every body was on a high and every morning we had bees and boys buzzing all around us . The boys kept inspecting the boxes, making sure that no ants were getting to the boxes and that bees were staying put. This went on for a couple of weeks. Then slowly disaster struck. One by one the bee boxes got attacked by worms that feed on the wax and so the bees started dying and the colonies started disappearing. Soon one morning all the boxes were empty leaving us depressed.

It took us a couple of weeks before we could pull ourselves and start afresh. We did a postmortem and realized some of the mistakes we did. In our over enthusiasm, we disturbed the boxes too much and this could have driven some of the colonies away. We have started the process again. At the time of writing there are two colonies, while a third disappeared just yesterday.

Construction work at Thulir Extn:

The Construction of the new wing at Thulir [which we had briefly mentioned in our post of July 28th ] is over. The mud and thatch workshed and storeroom has been finished and we have started using them. The lack of space, the constant construction activities and the heaps of mud and stone and dust amidst all our varied activities and increased number of people were getting on all our nerves . We heaved a sigh of relief when we had the extra space. We inaugurated it with all the younger kids making patterns with flowers all over the floor [Poo-kolams ] on Onam day. A big thanks to V.Krishnan and Santhanam Sridhar for financing the workshed.

So the Basic Technology course students have a classroom/ workspace as well as a new equipment/ tools store. The construction gave an opportunity to learn basic some building skills. The students got to help in doing the thatch roof as well as in making walls of Rammed earth. The theory classes conducted alongside introduced them to measurements, basic drawing of plans, concepts of scaled drawings etc.

The next step was to do a small construction project by themselves [without masons!]. We had plans to do a small extension to our house nearby and so this was a good opportunity for them to take on a building project. As a first step the students learnt to make stabilized mud blocks using a simple hand operated machine. The next step was to learn to mark out a building on site, and learn to do foundation work. The work started with ambitious 6 hour long work sessions, and soon every one was too tired [including us as we haven't been doing construction work at site for a while now!] and exhausted to pay any attention in the theory classes that dwelt on estimation and working out costs for billing their work.

So we settled down to a routine where they work 2 to 3 hours every day. Once they started to do the wall masonry the excitement mounted and the fascination in learning to build a wall to plumb took over. As I write this [sept 21st], we have just finished building a masonry arch today and are all feeling very good! There’s something almost magical when the form work that supports the arch is removed and the arch stands by itself defying gravity. [We just had a ceremonious removing of the form work that was greeted with a round of applause by the evening students who came to Thulir!].

With this achievement the students are feeling so good today, that they want to also try their hands at doing the bamboo and thatch roofing by themselves without a carpenter.

Maintenance of electrical and plumbing work:

Our students have become so confident now of their wiring and plumbing skills that they take up any maintenance work in our campus with keen interest and are able to complete it without constant supervision. They were able to locate a shorted underground cable, and fix it! This we thought would be a tricky job and had planned to arrange for an electrician to come after the boys give it a shot.

Billing of work:

One of the most important work that the students have to do routinely is recording details of materials used, their costs and also amount of time spent/ and quantity of work done. We feel that this is the most important aspect they need to learn to be able to become entrepreneurs. Also we need to quantify all the work that is done by the students and properly cost it so that the course too is clear about costs involved in training as well as income generated through learning by doing. Already, having heard of the kind of work the students are learning, the villagers have started getting small jobs done by us. Recently, we were asked to come and do a costing for a construction work done in the village to settle a dispute regarding contract payment. Our students went to measure the building and we helped them to work out the quantities. There have been requests to fix electronic gadgets such as radios and TVs, but currently we don't have the expertise and so are unable to take on these jobs.

Drop in number of Girl children visiting Thulir:

In April this year we had a tragedy. Nearby Thulir there is a stream with beautiful rock formations with a large pool t its bottom. This is a favourite place for children to go swimming and diving during hot summer afternoons. One afternoon when the Thulir boys were at The stream, a neighbour who had just finished his school final exams, and had come back home from his hostel, took a hurried dive into the shallow end of the pool and smashed his skull on a rock under water. Our boys had to pull out the body from underwater and we were all helpless as death had been instantaneous. This was a traumatic event and it took several weeks for the boys to shake themselves off it and resume normal visits to Thulir. This particular spot and the land adjacent to it was always believed to be haunted and this event reinforced this. The tragedy too was attributed to the spirit. But as children have to pass this land to come to Thulir,for a while, attendance at Thulir dropped drastically but picked up again. But the girl children have not come back in the numbers they used to before this tragedy. Coupled with this some of the senior girls came of age and the event has provided a convenient excuse for the parents not to send them. We have talked to some of the parents, and offered to escort their children back to the village in the evening [a distance of 600 meters], and so a few of them have started coming back. Visiting these homes in the Village was a very encouraging experience. We were welcomed very warmly and parents were generally appreciative of Thulir’s work. After being in Sittilingi for 3 years, now we are better accepted and are greeted warmly when we pass the village. We feel a lot more comfortable now and feel that we have some measure of acceptability among the villagers which we expected to happen [if at all] after a much longer time. THI’s work and the goodwill they have earned among the community , is an important factor in this happening so fast. We also hope that this is a sign of some degree of acceptance of our ideas among the community.

This year we have also had several requests from students appearing for class 10 exams that they would like to prepare for their exams by coming to Thulir full time. Right now we have three such students and two of our Basic Technology course students are also appearing for class 10 exams in some subjects [Mohan is writing English and maths and Senthil is appearing for the English exam.].This also takes a considerable time and effort from our side. Sometimes it is really frustrating as the students have not been taught any of the basics .

A new trainee has joined us:

Gowri from Sittilingi, aged 21 has joined Thulir as a trainee. She has studied B.A.

Tamil/Math month at Thulir:

This year we thought we would organize the evening sessions a bit more and so decided to focus on a single subject every month. So the activities [whether they are games or puzzles or reading writing exercises are all pertaining to the subject of the month. We have had focus on Tamil and are currently onto Math.

Visitors to Thulir:

Varuni: A graduate student from New York, Varuni taught the children craft work with wastepaper.

Tarsh Thekaekara came from Bangalore and fixed problems with the Thulir Computers. Thulir computers decided to crash one after the other and suddenly we were left with none of them working. Thanks to Tarsh we now have one working PC and so are able to send and receive mail [when the phone lines work!], and are able to do some of the routine writing and accounts work. He took a class on electronics for the students, teaching them basic soldering skills.

Harsha and Tariq visited us from Bangalore. Besides doing sessions in Art with Thulir Children, they also gave a boost to the volley ball game played in the evenings.

All the above mentioned persons are children of friends and colleagues of ours and we have seen them grow up as children. Now they are all confident young adults involved in learning different vocations. Having them visit us was such a pleasure. They deeply empathise with Thulir children and were ready to interact with them and conduct sessions for them. We also realised how much they have thought about issues relating to learning and education.

Shri. Balasubramanian and Shrimathi Meenakshi from Chennai spent a few days with us .Shrimathi. Meenakshi conducted interesting sessions for the younger children . Her Tamil classes for our son Sreyarth were especially helpful as on most days we tend to neglect his needs while we cater to the various demands being made on us. She also helped the hospital with a lot of Tamil – English translations.

Maggie and Caroline, medical interns visiting THI hospital are with us for 2 months and have been interacting with the Thulir children every week. They joined us on a hike with the children to the nearby forest. Their sessions give an opportunity for our children to learn English.

Mr Suresh Nair and Mr S.Bhashyam from Bangalore visited us last month. They were appreciative of our work and made a generous financial contribution.

We would like to thank all the above mentioned people and look forward to their visits to Sittilingi and support in the future. We also take this opportunity to thank all of you who have been good friends of Thulir, and shown your appreciation through words of encouragement, visiting us and conducting sessions with Thulir students and through financial contributions. We have been very fortunate in having a large group of very supportive individuals without whom our efforts at Thulir would be impossible. We look forward to continuing this relationship and hope to see more of you visit us.

July 28, 2006

Construction at Thulir

We are adding a new wing which will have a class room cum workshop for the
Basic Technology course, and a store room for the tools and materials that
would be used by them. The wing will also have an entrance lobby, where
additional classes can be held. The wing has been designed in such a way that
we now have a court in the middle that can be used for large gatherings [100
persons] and performances.

This has also provided an opportunity for our students to learn some
construction skills and some of the days in the past couple of weeks has been
spent working at site and in theory classes on basics of construction
materials and their properties.

Bee Keeping Workshop

On 11th and 12th July we held a 2 day workshop on Bee Keeping. Justin and
Rajendran, Staff from Keystone, an NGO specialising in beekeeping and honey
gathering activity in the Nilgiris, were the resourse persons. Apart from our
course students, 4 farmers from the villages around also participated. The
workshop generated a lot of enthusiasm amongst our students and we also
realised that given a rich forest area around us, there is a lot of scope for
serious Bee keeping and honey processing activity.

As a followup 4 of the students from the batch along with Anu and Sreyarth are
currently visiting Keystone's field Centre at Vazhathottam in the Nilgiris to
learn more practical skills in bee keeping.

More of their visit in the next post after they come back!

The First batch of Basic Technology course has joined Thulir!

June was a hectic month in Thulir. There was a phase of touring the nearby
villages and explaining what this new course on Basic Technologies is all
about and seeking applications from suitable candidates. Then we had the
applications coming in, in all 13 of them. We decided to keep size of the
first batch between 6 and 8 students, given our constraints of space,
materials and staff!!

After a day full of interviews and tests, we selected 7 students for the first
batch. Given the fact that most of them are already in the earning age group
[most boys at 14, who drop out of school, end up migrating to the city in
search of jobs], we decided to offer them a stipend of Rs. 500 a month to
take care of their personal expenses.

The course took off to a flying start as we had some major electrical wiring
and plumbing work on the third day of the course itself. A good electrician
had come from Chennai to do this work and so our students got a good
opportunity to learn the basics of electrical work.

This was followed by small electrical work at Thulir, at the hospital and at
staff homes. So the students got practise what they had learnt in real life
situations. They were also taught to take measurements, to keep track of
materials used, record these properly and to make bills! The course in its
second week has stated earning money!

June 07, 2006

Looking Back -- Three Years of Thulir

April 2004 to April 2006

It is 2 years since Thulir was inaugurated on April 14th 2004. Its time to take stock and look back at the past 2 years happenings and also to see where we are going.

Many of you have been keeping track of progress here through our website and the newsfromthulir blog. So we thought instead of listing much of it again, we would try to highlight some of the important aspects through a question and answer mode.

***** What is Thulir ?

Thulir is a physical space. This place exists for creating an environment conducive for learning. It is a place where ultimately adults and children should be able to explore together whatever areas of learning interests them. Ideally, the community itself, and the environment around the community should be the place where all learning happens. But the situation as it exists today is far from this ideal. Therefore the need to create a conducive space.

***** Who uses Thulir ?

Thulir started off with school going children using the place in the evenings. Along with them, 3 staff children, who don't go to school started using the place in the mornings. This small group grew as, 4 school dropout children joined later. For the past year 3 trainees [all around 25 yrs of age] have also joined the group. Of course, for the 2 of us too this has been, and continues to be a great place for learning!!

The attendance figures show that more than 200 children have used Thulir the in the past 2 years. Of this about 25 children have been more regular with attendance of more than 100 days, with the others using for shorter periods.

***** Why is attendance not compulsory?

We find that a common reason for absence is that children are required to help at the farms when there is extra work during particular seasons [harvest, weeding, etc.] We feel such work is an important part of education, and we need to be accommodative. We want children to develop a love for learning and voluntarily come to Thulir. Coercion through insistence on attendance might be counter productive. However, we do recognize that there would be instances where attendance might have to be regulated, for example where a group of children take up learning an organized course.

****** How does Learning happen in Thulir?

    There are many ways in which learning happens:

  1. through class room teaching: These are conventional situations with the teacher the taught and the blackboard. This is very useful for teaching language and to some extent Math skills;
  2. through sharing sessions: There is a person in focus around whom a group gathers, and stories are read out, newspaper articles explained, audio-visual material shown and explained, science experiments demonstrated etc. The atmosphere is more informal and often there are questions raised or comments offered by the students;
  3. guided activities: these often happen in small groups of 3 to 6 students and they usually have a task or learning materials to explore. From time to time they are helped by others. These include art and crafts, using play materials that help to understand concepts in math and language;
  4. self-study: individuals/ small groups use books and materials available to study by themselves.
  5. through camps/ workshops: camps and workshops are held where sessions that focus on a particular activity are held. Workshops are conducted with resource persons who have special skills [for e.g. in theatre/ art / music etc.]

****** Is this kind of learning effective? How much have the children learnt in the past 2 years?

Yes. It is! We find that the children who have been regulars at Thulir have improved in many aspects.

They were very wary of taking books and browse by themselves. Now they take books by themselves and read/browse.

Their language skills are improving [from a situation where they could not even form sentences in Tamil properly, to the level where they have confidence to write small stories and illustrate them. Of course, they do make mistakes even now but it is so much less now.

Most children could not do basic math functions like subtraction, multiplication and division. Now a lot of them are able to handle these.

They have travelled far from a situation where they would be shy and diffident, to now being able to interact with strangers, ask questions and learn from them. Earlier they were unruly, often using harsh language and breaking into physical fights. Now they are calm, use materials responsibly, take proper care of Thulir and have begun to cooperate among themselves and do group work without adult supervision.

Initially the children were hooked to the TV and many of them wanted to often time their visits based on TV schedules. Now the children are quite happy to forego TV and want to spend more time in Thulir!

Most importantly their self-discipline and motivation has improved. Most children can engage themselves in learning what interests them without our intervention.

We have a number of one to one interactions which are more effective than if we had catered to a large group in a class room kind of situation.

Of course, we would have liked to see much more improvement in many aspects, in being able to speak in English, for instance.

****** Why is Thulir not a school?

If Thulir were to be an effective small school using alternative methods, we would have to go for a good teacher/ student ratio, between 1: 8 to 1:10. So with the 2 teachers that we are, we would only be able to cater to a small group of maximum 20 children. Also ideally in a school, the children ought to have a range of teachers to interact with and so a place with just 2 teachers would be really inadequate. It is really difficult to get teachers locally, as there are hardly any qualified locals. Even the 10th/12th pass are very poor in their basics.

In contrast when we are a Resource centre, we can reach out to more children, as there are many more possible ways of learning. Besides, the situation is so bad in our villages for the majority of school going children that, we feel a small level of input can make a big change in the child/ learner [in terms of attitudes and self confidence] and help him do better in School/ or his community.

****** How do we evaluate learning?

This is indeed a difficult question. What do we take as our indicators? We need to keep in mind that Education is a long term activity and one does not get immediate results. Conventional school education does have its system of tests and exams. We have been wary of doing this till now...except for a couple of occasions when we gave a list of questions to be answered casually. Our fear is that, given the fact that tests and exams have been telling our children how bad they are, the children can get discouraged in their genuine attempts at learning, if we too started having regular tests. This is not to say we have a test/ exam phobia!! After all our dropouts have cleared the public exams papers that they were tutored for in Thulir! [In these 2 years Senthil cleared Social studies paper for class 10, Vediappan his class 12 commerce paper, and Mohan his Tamil and Social studies papers of Class 10].

From time to time we ask the children to take stock and list out what they had learned.

Ideally, we should prepare progress reports for individual children. Given the large numbers [more than 200 children!] this will be a too time consuming task. So at best we have a series of anecdotes of individual cases and a few isolated examples of achievements [conventional yardsticks of passing exams]. This is an area where we have to think more and perhaps learn from others, and work out credible methods in the coming years.

****** What about exams?

We have tutored students in the past 2 years to write their public exams. However this was very energy consuming exercise and these have to be necessarily a one to one situation for it to be a success as most children do not have their basic skills right. So we will be able to reach out to only a small number of children with tuitions for exams. We feel that merely passing exams does not equip the children to make a successful living. So if we can find ways for our children to gain exposure and confidence then they can go ahead and acquire skills and qualifications [including academic qualifications!] that would help them find livelihoods.

****** Are the students paying for use of Thulir? Should they pay?

No. Right now the students don't pay.

The activities and the methods used in Thulir are new for the children and also for their parents. It would not have been feasible for charging them for use of Thulir, for a service that they cannot recognize as valuable. It is true that a free service may not be appreciated as much as something that one pays for. But education being a long drawn process [unlike say getting treated in a hospital for an illness], is it fair to ask poor and economically weaker persons to pay?

We also feel that once we offer a definite package such as say a one year course on basic technologies that is proven to help students find a vocation in life, one can stipulate the cost for the course and make it known to the community. If it is a figure not affordable for specific applicants, one may have a system of scholarships.

****** What is the cost per child?

It is difficult to work out a cost per child figure. This is because of the various groups of children/adults making use of the facility to varying degrees. For instance, we have children who have come very regularly in the evenings for the past couple of years, and some who have been not so regular but who have made use of the facility and have benefited. Apart from this we have children who use the facilities on a full time basis [school dropouts]. Then we have had trainees who have undergone training and have learned academic skills. We also have had sessions with parents on learning. So it is difficult to work out a per capita cost.

****** Can Thulir take care of all the educational needs of the villages around it?

No. Thulir is right now at a very modest scale and for it to cater to all the needs [or even most of the needs] would require more resources, both physical infrastructure and human resources. Even with more inputs we don't see ourselves being able to fulfill all the needs in the coming years. There is scope for other people with specific skills or even other institutions to offer their special resources to cater to various aspects of education that we are unable to provide, given our limitations.

****** Where is Thulir going?

Most activities as mentioned above to be continued, and strengthened further. Apart from this, our work with the school dropouts/ post school youth will take further shape, this year. There would essentially be more focus on hands on skill development. Currently we are in the process of developing a curriculum for this course.

April 13, 2006

Thulir Camp

In the Month of March, We held a weekend camp for the Thulir
Children. The children came to Thulir on Saturday morning at 10 am
and stayed in Thulir till Sunday evening 5 pm. For most children,
this is the first time they are staying over at Thulir and so there
was much excitement.

About 25 boys and 12 girls attended the camp in the 11 to 15 age group. Volunteers were drawn to take on various chores like cooking, serving and dish washing and cleaning. We had a mix of activities that involved the whole group
and some that were done in small groups. The small group activities
included writing small stories, riddles, doing craft work [leaf art--
animal figures made with leaves stuck on paper!!]. There were
sessions in singing/ small play rehearsals. A group discussion on
fear in the evening was also held as there is a local legend about a
spirit in our neighbourhood that keeps a few children away from Thulir on new moon days!!

We tried a small experiment during the camp . For the sessions with smaller groups, we identified a few boys and girls as groupfacilitators, and briefed them on the role they were supposed to play. They took this up very eagerly. It was interesting for us to observe that these sessions went with very minimal input from us and the groups worked with great concentration in the best possible cooperative manner and produced some very interesting work.


March 13, 2006

Carolyn, Patti and Nick

Carolyn and Patti kept their yearly date with Sittilingi and were here from mid Dec
to mid Feb. They brought more learning materials similar to the ones they brought
last year with them and it has been a valuable addition to Thulir's resources.
Their friend Nick too had come this year and he is also enthusiastic about clay work.
They held a session with the children, and we have lots more of material to bake in the oven!!

March 04, 2006

Senthil and Vediappan are in Timbaktu!

From Thali [where the Thulir team went for an exposure visit last week---see previous post below for more on it!], Vediappan and Senthil along with Krishna proceeded towards "Timbaktu Collective" in Andhra Pradesh. We stopped at Vijay and Gracy's farm in Thali for the night. It was a nice opportunity to visit our friends whose Sittilingi visit and interaction with Thulir children are still fresh in our minds. Timbaktu has an interesting school and children's centre, which agreed to host Senthil and Vediappan for a one month stint. Subba Raju who is instrumental in the running of the school has been talking about giving opportunities for children to use their hands in school. This vision has taken the form of a Children's centre where a well equipped library and workshop staffed with sympathetic instructors are available for children to explore their creativity. Senthil and Vediappan took to the place as soon as we reached and by the middle of the third day when it was time for Krishna to leave them, had settled down nicely inspite of a language problem. As this blog is being published the news is that they are happy and keeping themselves busy learning and working in the centre.

Exposure Visit

Pics: [clockwise from top left]

1. a simple compost structure at Green Foundation
2. Jayappa at Green Founation campus
3. with the Navadarshanam team

We finally decided its time for our senior students and staff to travel out of Sittilingi valley. Lots of village youth who work in Tiruppur had come for the Pongal holidays in January and trigged off a travel itch amongst our senior boys. We were also visited by Shri Jayadeva and Shri Krishna Prasad from Green Foundation, Thali, who presented a slide show of stunning images of seed conservation work done by Thali farmers and also of bio-diverse farms. We decided we must see this work for ourselves and get ideas on how to go about doing similar work here.

Thali, happens to be about 200 kms from here. We also knew of another project named Navadarshanam which has worked on bringing back to life 100 acres of degraded land. So we decided to visit these two places.

First we went to Navadarshanam, where Jyothi and Ananthu along with their team gave us a warm welcome and looked after us really well. Our team felt so at home that by evening, they had joined the residents intheir daily volleyball game and later in the common kitchen pitched in to learn to make rotis! The team speaks mostly in Kannada and Telugu [being a border village], and so it was a good opportunity to learn a bit of kannada too.

Ananthu took us around their land and campus and explained to us the various energy systems that they have installed and are using. [solar pv panels, wind mill, biogas operated genset, and charcoal making oven]. They also have a good food processing unit and we were taken around that too. Our boys were keen to know how the various products were being made and Ananthu patiently gave the recipies and explained how to go about preparing them.

The next day we went to Green Foundation's Centre near Thali. Here we were exposed to the concept of bio diversity and the need for conservation of seeds. We were also shown different techniques to determine seed fertililty/ growing plants with drip/ micro irrigation, different methods of composting and mulching/ preparation of organic pesticides and growth promoters, etc. The high point of the visit was going to Jayappa's farm and seeing the way he has managed to grow a wide variety of plants in a small plot of 20 cents [a fifth of an acre]. We also visited a village seed bank which is being run by the local women's group and talked to them about how they started and achieved so much.

From Thali the next stop was Puvidham school near Dharmapuri. In 2004, students from there had visited Thulir and it ws our turn to make a return visit. Puvidham school has a hostel for its students and our team stayed there. It was a brief stay of 2 nights and a day there and we had a lot of fun talking/ singing and observing a typical day's programme at the school.

February 28, 2006

Esther's Stint in Sittilingi comes to an end

A nurse by training, she came to volunteer in Sittilingi tribal hospital for a year. While she has been here, Esther came to interact with the Thulir children every week for a session. A Warm friendly person, she was much liked by the children. She helped them to converse in English with her and in turn learnt Tamil from them. She taught children a variety of handicrafts such as making of dolls out of straw, sketching, painting and string games. She held a series of sessions on "exploring the senses".

She left in Feb, back for Hamburg and we at Thulir wish her all the best and look forward to her next visit!

Theatre workshop

Dr. Velu Saravanan, a theatre professional who specialises on working with children had visited Thulir on a weekend and conducted a theatre workshop. An accomplished professional, he quickly got the children into the act and in 24hrs managed to teach them a play and rehearse sufficiently to put up a performance for the Sittilingi parents and friends from the hospital. His friend, Mr Gambhiran who specialises in writing stories for children, accompanied him and regaled us all with a story written by him. He helped three of our junior children put up a skit that had us all in splits!

January 27, 2006

More on Vigyan Ashram, Pabal

Yogesh Kulkarni of Vigyan Ashram has mailed in to say that the following website has more uptodate information on Vigyan Ashram:

Further, their course is being conducted now in 23 Govt Schools.[not just the initaial three schools that we had mentioned in the report!]

January 26, 2006

Pongal/ Shankranti Time!!

Pongal is the most important festival in rural Tamilnadu and Sittilingi is no exception. The anticipation starts a week ago when houses get renovated and fresh coat of lime wash applied on all the houses. Thulir children too were eagerly looking forward and we were all a little depressed at the thought of us not being there during Pongal, for we had fixed a visit to the Pune area to visit a couple of interesting projects during the Pongal time. So we had a special session on making "kolam" in thulir and it was a lot of fun, with the whole place tranformed by a lot of laughter, fun, visitors and beautiful patterns and colours. The Thulir kitchen is functioning since the December holiday camps, and so we had hot, tasty "sundal" to eat.

Visit to Vigyan Ashram , Pabal [near Pune]

The Vigyan Ashram at Pabal was started 25 years ago by Dr Kalbag. It aims to provide multi-skill training in technologies among school children.The philosophy is that doing things with ones hands helps improve ones capacity to learn, thus the intellectual and physical pursuits are brought together. It also gives confidence to learn new skills as well as to face real life situations.

The course at the Ashram is a year long one with introduction to varied skills in the following areas: Engineering [plumbing/ welding, masonry etc.], animal husbandry and agriculture, food preservation, health, energy and environment [maintenance of various gadgets, motor winding and repair, fabrication of bio-gas plants / solar water heater etc.]

The emphasis is on doing real life projects, with proper costing done and the students labour charged for. It is a requirement of the project that each student earns at least Rs 1000 by the end of the course! This means that work is done with a lot of seriousness and every class session is challenging and intensely engaging for the student.

The programme has been running successfully for the past 25 years. That it still continues with a lively spirit and enthuses so many students to come and learn is a testament to the sound base on which the whole idea rests and the the way the course is conducted. The Maharashtra Govt is now trying to replicate the course for school students in rural areas. Interestingly, the pilot project Dr Kalbag ran in three Govt schools showed improved academic performance of the students who undertook this course compared to those who didn't.

It is really interesting to see Vigyan Ashram very successfully adapting Nai talim ideas to contemporary rural society. It has managed to retain an "Ashram" culture of frugality [nothing is wasted...while the meals provided are wholesome, no waste is allowed to come out of the dining hall], while providing the students with all the latest tools to improve ones skills [computers, a design and fabrication lab, etc.].

The seriousness of the pursuit has not robbed the place of fun. There is much laughter and joking around, and work does-not seem to be a drudgery. This is a significant achievement. The fact that the course is a multi skill one, provides for variety [as against repetitive boredom of modern factory skills [say machining/ welding etc.]. Here variety ranges from knitting and pickle making to assembling computers!! It also importantly helps the student to get a feel for the variety of skills that are required in the real world and to be able to experiment for oneself to find which particular skill/s interest him/her the most. The student thus is in a good position to choose his/her vocation. It has also been reported that students have done well in the industry as they are able to do multi tasking and are not limited to their specialised skill. In the villages too, it is helpful that they are able to provide a variety of services and thus improve their earning capacity, as there is often not enough demand for one particular skill.

For more details of the project and Dr Kalbag's recounting of interesting stories from the project, you may like to visit the following link:

We are really glad we made this trip to Pabal as it has clarified so many doubts we have been having regarding training the dropout children in life skills:

What skills do we give them?

How will our giving skills help them to make a living in real life?

Work in the school situation has always been a problem... how does one ensure that children's natural enthusiasm and liveliness is preserved? Can work be more learning and fun and less of drudgery?

Will our children get stuck to one or two skills they pick up? Will they have the ability to learn newer skills and adapt themselves to changing technologies?

Is it possible for rural children to interface with and learn from newer technologies [computers, cell phones etc] without getting overwhelmed?

Visit to Phaltan

It was nice to visit Maxine Bernsten, who has been running an alternative school in Phaltan. Her warmth and humility were inspiring and we were really fortunate to be able to have many discussions on various topics from language teaching methods, to skills training of children, to impact of technology, to work of Martin Buber!!

In Phaltan we also visited ARTI, an NGO working on appropriate rural technologies. We saw very interesting technologies and found their solar dryer and charcoal briquette stoves particularly useful for our area.

Visit to Children's Science Centre at IUCCA, Pune University

Arvind Gupta, works at this centre and has written many books on science teaching. He also teaches making of interesting science toys from ordinary, low-cost [often waste] materials. In fact in 1993, meeting with him in one of his workshops at Gandhigram, was what is responsible for our getting inspired to work with children. As always, meeting him recharged us and his child like enthusiasm rubbed off to us. When we got into the train to head back home after meeting him, one of the first things we did was to make paper caps with the children travelling with us!!

His website has illustrations on how to make some of the toys and an exhaustive list of books on children's education as well as good children's literature.


January 05, 2006

Happy New Year!

Naikutti children in Thulir

This is the first posting of this year. We Wish you all a very Happy New Year ahead.

From 24th December, the Christmas holidays for the local Government. school
began. So the children were free during the day and we thought it would be
good to have them come during the day to Thulir, so that we can have extended
period of activities.

The children were happy about this [there is a consistent demand from
Sittilingi children that we open during the mornings during the holidays].
The children from Moola Sittilingi decided to stay at home and not come
during the holidays. Many of them, stayed back to help their families with
the harvest. But there was an unexpected request. A couple of children from the village Naikutti [6 km away, from where our trainee Anbu comes], expressed interest in coming to Thulir during these holidays. We were glad that Thulir could be used by even children who are not in the immediate vicinity.

From a couple of boys in the first day, it went on to become a group of nine
boys by the end of the week! Most of these boys study in Government boarding
schools away from home, and were home for holidays. A couple of them had
bicycles to cover the 6 km distance, but the rest actually walked all the way
everyday! A couple of them go to the Sittilingi school but don't find time
in the evenings to come to Thulir as they live far away.

The activities during this week ranged from paper folding, to drawing and painting, to watching a video on bacteria. On the day of the video show, we also had Madaiyan [who is from this area, got trained as a lab technician and works in the tribal hospital. Madaiyan brought a microscope and some slides
of blood cells and also TB bacteria from the hospital. We also made a slide
of onion peel to look at plant cells.

We finally have started the cooking of diet supplement for the children
starting last month. It is a simple Ragi porridge or boiled channa right now.

This is the time of the year when Thulir usually has a lot of visitors. This
year the following visitors have come to Thulir.


an old friend and a mechanical engineer who specialises in design, manufacture
and erection of micro-hydro power plants, he shared his experiences of work
with the children. He also enjoys origami and taught the children some paper

Music teacher, Udaya Banu:

He teaches music at the tribal school in Gudalur Nilgiris,and is currently
visiting us as we write this. So there is much singing, laughter and fun in Thulir!!

Carolyn and Patti:

Friends of Thulir from UK, who come every winter to Sittilingi ,are back in
Sittilingi. Carolyn has brought some more learning materials from UK. Some of
the materials she had brought last time proved very useful [like the
interlocking cubes, and triangular dominoes for math learning]. Patti, you
may remember, last year had introduced clay work to the children. There is
much excitement in Thulir in anticipation of more Clay work and firing of
the oven.